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Thomas Hobbes’s Social Contract Theory | ETHICS

Introduction | Thomas Hobbes’s Social Contract Theory

  • Social contract, in political philosophy, an actual or hypothetical compact, or agreement, between the ruled and their rulers, defining the rights and duties of each. In primeval times, according to the theory, individuals were born into an anarchic state of nature, which was happy or unhappy according to the particular version. They then, by exercising natural reason, formed a society (and a government) by means of a contract among themselves.
  • The social contract theory throws light on the origin of the society. According to this theory all men are born free and equal. Society came into existence because of the agreement entered into by the individuals. The classical representatives of this school of thought are Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Rousseau.

Thomas Hobbes’s Social Contract Theory

  • Thomas Hobbes was of opinion that society came into being as a means for the protection of men against the consequences of their own nature. Man in the state of nature was in perpetual conflict with his neighbors on account of his essentially selfish nature. ‘The life of man was solitary poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Every man was an enemy to every other man.
  • Hobbes in his book Leviathan has made it clear that man found nothing but grief in the company of his fellows. Since the conditions in the state of nature were intolerable and men longed for peace, the people entered into a kind of social contract to ensure for themselves security and certainty of life and property.
  • By mutual agreement they decided to surrender their natural rights into the hands of a few or one with authority to command. The agreement was of each with all and of all with each other. The contract became binding on the whole community as perpetual social bond. Thus in order to protect himself against the evil consequences of his own nature man organized himself in society in order to live in peace with all.

John Locke’s Social Contract Theory | Thomas Hobbes’s Social Contract Theory

  • John Locke believed that man in the state of nature was enjoying an ideal liberty free from all sorts of rules and regulations. The state of nature was a state of peace, goodwill, mutual assistance and preservation.But there was no recognized system of law and justice. Hence his peaceful life was often upset by the corruption and viciousness of degenerate men. The men were forced to live in full of fears and continual dangers.
  • In order to escape from this and to gain certainty and security men made a contract to enter into civil society or the state. This contract Locke called social contract. This contract put an end to the state of nature and substituted it by civil society. The social contract was no more than a surrender of rights and powers so that man’s remaining rights would be protected and preserved. The contract was for limited and specific purposes and what was given up or surrendered to the whole community and not to a man or to an assembly of men. According to Locke the social contract later on contributed to the governmental control. The governmental contract was made by the society when it established a government and selected a ruler to remove the inconveniences of ill –condition.

Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract Theory

  • Rousseau the French writer of the 18th century in his famous book The Social Contract wrote that man in the state of nature was a noble savage who led a life of primitive simplicity and idyllic happiness. He was independent, contented, self-sufficient, healthy, fearless and good. It was only primitive instinct and sympathy which united him with others. He knew neither right or wrong and was free from all notions of virtue and vice.
  • Man enjoyed a pure, unsophisticated, innocent life of perfect freedom and equality in the state of nature. But these conditions did not last long. Population increased and reason was dawned. Simplicity and idyllic happiness disappeared. Families were established, institution of property emerged and human equality was ended. Man began to think in terms of mine and yours.
  • When equality and happiness of the early state was lost, war, murder, conflicts became the order of the day. The escape from this was found in the formation of a civil society. Natural freedom gave place to civil freedom by a social contract. As a result of this contract a multitude of individuals became a collective unity- a civil society .Rousseau said that by virtue of this contract everyone while uniting himself to all remains as free as before.
  • There was only one contract which was social as well as political. The individual surrendered himself completely and unconditionally to the will of the body of which he became a member. The body so created was a moral and collective body and Rousseau called it the general will. The unique feature of the general will was that it represented collective good as distinguished from the private interests of its members.
  • The theory of social contract has been widely criticized as historically there is nothing to show that the society has ever been deliberately created as a result of voluntary agreement or contract. Nor can we suppose that man could ever think of entering into a contract with others when he lived under conditions of extreme simplicity, ignorance and even brutality. The theory seemed to be mere fiction as state of nature never existed. The most primitive people even lived in some form of society however rudimentary or unorganized. There are always two parties to the contract. There cannot be a one-sided contract as was conceived by Hobbes. The advocates of the theory hold that the early individuals entered into the contract for their individual safety and security of property. But history tells us the other way.
  • Early law was more communal than individual and the unit of society was not the individual but the family. Society has moved from status to contract and not from contract to status as the theorists of the social contract argued. According to Sir Henry Maine contract is not the beginning of society but the end of it.

More Recent Social Contract Theories | Thomas Hobbes’s Social Contract Theory

John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice

  • In 1972, the publication of John Rawls‘ extremely influential A Theory of Justice brought moral and political philosophy back from what had been a long hiatus of philosophical consideration.
  • Rawls’ theory relies on a Kantian understanding of persons and their capacities.
  • For Rawls, as for Kant, persons have the capacity to reason from a universal point of view, which in turn means that they have the particular moral capacity of judging principles from an impartial standpoint.
  • In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues that the moral and political point of view is discovered via impartiality. (It is important to note that this view, delineated in A Theory of Justice, has undergone substantial revisions by Rawls, and that he described his later view as “political liberalism”.) He invokes this point of view (the general view that Thomas Nagel describes as “the view from nowhere”) by imagining persons in a hypothetical situation, the Original Position, which is characterized by the epistemological limitation of the Veil of Ignorance.
  • Rawls’ original position is his highly abstracted version of the State of Nature. It is the position from which we can discover the nature of justice and what it requires of us as individual persons and of the social institutions through which we will live together cooperatively. In the original position, behind the veil of ignorance, one is denied any particular knowledge of one’s circumstances, such as one’s gender, race, particular talents or disabilities, one’s age, social status, one’s particular conception of what makes for a good life, or the particular state of the society in which one lives. Persons are also assumed to be rational and disinterested in one another’s well-being. These are the conditions under which, Rawls argues, one can choose principles for a just society which are themselves chosen from initial conditions that are inherently fair. Because no one has any of the particular knowledge he or she could use to develop principles that favor his or her own particular circumstances, in other words the knowledge that makes for and sustains prejudices, the principles chosen from such a perspective are necessarily fair. For example, if one does not know whether one is female or male in the society for which one must choose basic principles of justice, it makes no sense, from the point of view of self-interested rationality, to endorse a principle that favors one sex at the expense of another, since, once the veil of ignorance is lifted, one might find oneself on the losing end of such a principle. Hence Rawls describes his theory as “justice as fairness.” Because the conditions under which the principles of justice are discovered are basically fair, justice proceeds out of fairness.
  • The principles that persons in the Original Position, behind the Veil of Ignorance, would choose to regulate a society at the most basic level (that is, prior even to a Constitution) are called by Rawls, aptly enough, the Two Principles of Justice. These two principles determine the distribution of both civil liberties and social and economic goods.
  • The first principle states that each person in a society is to have as much basic liberty as possible, as long as everyone is granted the same liberties. That is, there is to be as much civil liberty as possible as long as these goods are distributed equally. (This would, for example, preclude a scenario under which there was a greater aggregate of civil liberties than under an alternative scenario, but under which such liberties were not distributed equally amongst citizens.)
  • The second principle states that while social and economic inequalities can be just, they must be available to everyone equally (that is, no one is to be on principle denied access to greater economic advantage) and such inequalities must be to the advantage of everyone. This means that economic inequalities are only justified when the least advantaged member of society is nonetheless better off than she would be under alternative arrangements. So, only if a rising tide truly does carry all boats upward, can economic inequalities be allowed for in a just society. The method of the original position supports this second principle, referred to as the Difference Principle, because when we are behind the veil of ignorance, and therefore do not know what our situation in society will be once the veil of ignorance is lifted, we will only accept principles that will be to our advantage even if we end up in the least advantaged position in society.
  • These two principles are related to each other by a specific order. The first principle, distributing civil liberties as widely as possible consistent with equality, is prior to the second principle, which distributes social and economic goods. In other words, we cannot decide to forgo some of our civil liberties in favor of greater economic advantage. Rather, we must satisfy the demands of the first principle, before we move on to the second. From Rawls’ point of view, this serial ordering of the principles expresses a basic rational preference for certain kinds of goods, i.e., those embodied in civil liberties, over other kinds of goods, i.e., economic advantage.

David Gauthier | Thomas Hobbes’s Social Contract Theory

  • In his 1986 book, Morals by Agreement, David Gauthier set out to renew Hobbesian moral and political philosophy. In that book, he makes a strong argument that Hobbes was right: we can understand both politics and morality as founded upon an agreement between exclusively self-interested yet rational persons. He improves upon Hobbes’ argument, however, by showing that we can establish morality without the external enforcement mechanism of the Sovereign. Hobbes argued that men’s passions were so strong as to make cooperation between them always in danger of breaking down, and thus that a Sovereign was necessary to force compliance. Gauthier, however, believes that rationality alone convinces persons not only to agree to cooperate, but to stick to their agreements as well.
  • We should understand ourselves as individual Robinson Crusoes, each living on our own island, lucky or unlucky in terms of our talents and the natural provisions of our islands, but able to enter into negotiations and deals with one another to trade goods and services with one another. Entering into such agreements is to our own advantage, and so rationality convinces us to both make such agreements and stick to them as well.
  • Gauthier has an advantage over Hobbes when it comes to developing the argument that cooperation between purely self-interested agents is possible. He has access to rational choice theory and its sophisticated methodology for showing how such cooperation can arise. In particular, he appeals to the model of the Prisoner’s Dilemma to show that self-interest can be consistent with acting cooperatively. (There is a reasonable argument to be made that we can find in Hobbes a primitive version of the problem of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.)

Contemporary Critiques of Social Contract Theory

Given the longstanding and widespread influence that social contract theory has had, it comes as no surprise that it is also the objects of many critiques from a variety of philosophical perspectives. Feminists and race-conscious philosophers, in particular, have made important arguments concerning the substance and viability of social contract theory.

  • Feminist Arguments
    • For the most part, feminism resists any simple or universal definition. In general though, feminists take women’s experiences seriously, as well as the impact that theories and practices have for women’s lives. Given the pervasive influence of contract theory on social, political, and moral philosophy, then, it is not surprising that feminists should have a great deal to say about whether contract theory is adequate or appropriate from the point of view of taking women seriously. To survey all of the feminist responses to social contract theory would carry us well beyond the boundaries of the present article. I will concentrate therefore on just three of those arguments: Carole Pateman’s argument about the relation between the contract and women’s subordination to men, feminist arguments concerning the nature of the liberal individual, and the care argument.
  • The Sexual Contract
    • Carole Pateman 1988 book, The Sexual Contract, argues that lying beneath the myth of the idealized contract, as described by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, is a more fundamental contract concerning men’s relationship to women.
    • Contract theory represents itself as being opposed to patriarchy and patriarchal right. (Locke’s social contract, for example, is set by him in stark contrast to the work of Robert Filmer who argued in favor of patriarchal power.) Yet the “original pact” that precedes the social contract entered into by equals is the agreement by men to dominate and control women. This ‘original pact’ is made by brothers, literally or metaphorically, who, after overthrowing the rule of the father, then agree to share their domination of the women who were previously under the exclusive control of one man, the father. The change from “classical patriarchalism” to modern patriarchy is a shift, then, in who has power over women. It is not, however, a fundamental change in whether women are dominated by men. Men’s relationships of power to one another change, but women’s relationship to men’s power does not.
    • Modern patriarchy is characterized by a contractual relationship between men, and part of that contract involves power over women. This fact, that one form of patriarchy was not overthrown completely, but rather was replaced with a different form, in which male power was distributed amongst more men, rather than held by one man, is illustrated by Freud’s story of the genesis of civilization. According to that story, a band of brothers, lorded over by a father who maintained exclusive sexual access to the women of the tribe, kill the father, and then establish a contract among themselves to be equal and to share the women. This is the story, whether we understand Freud’s tale to be historically accurate or not, of modern patriarchy and its deep dependence on contract as the means by which men control and dominate women.
  • The Nature of the Liberal Individual
    • Following Pateman’s argument, a number of feminists have also called into question the very nature of the person at the heart of contract theory. The Liberal Individual, the contractor, is represented by the Hobbesian man, Locke’s proprietor, Rousseau’s “Noble Savage,” Rawls’s person in the original position, and Gauthier’s Robinson Crusoe.
    • The liberal individual is purported to be universal: raceless, sexless, classless, disembodied, and is taken to represent an abstract, generalized model of humanity writ large. Many philosophers have argued, however, that when we look more closely at the characteristics of the liberal individual, what we find is not a representation of universal humanity, but a historically located, specific type of person. C.B. Macpherson, for example, has argued that Hobbesian man is, in particular, a bourgeois man, with the characteristics we would expect of a person during the nascent capitalism that characterized early modern Europe.      (Thomas Hobbes’s Social Contract Theory)
  • Arguing from Care
    • Theorizing from within the emerging tradition of care ethics, feminist philosophers such as Baier and Held argue that social contract theory fails as an adequate account of our moral or political obligations.
    • Social contract theory, in general, only goes so far as to delineate our rights and obligations. But this may not be enough to adequately reveal the full extent of what it means to be a moral person, and how fully to respond to others with whom one interacts through relations of dependence.
  • Race-Conscious Argument
    • Charles Mills’ 1997 book, The Racial Contract, is a critique not only of the history of Western political thought, institutions, and practices, but, more specifically, of the history of social contract theory. It is inspired by Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract, and seeks to show that non-whites have a similar relationship to the social contract as do women. As such, it also calls into question the supposed universality of the liberal individual who is the agent of contract theory.
    • This racial contract is to some extent a meta-contract, which determines the bounds of personhood and parameters of inclusion and exclusion in all the other contracts that come after it. It manifests itself both formally and informally. It is an agreement, originally among European men in the beginning of the modern period, to identify themselves as ‘white’ and therefore as fully human, and to identify all others, in particular the natives with whom they were beginning to come into contact, as ‘other’: non-white and therefore not fully human. So, race is not just a social construct, as others have argued, it is more especially a political construct, created to serve a particular political end, and the political purposes of a specific group.

Conclusion | Thomas Hobbes’s Social Contract Theory

  • Virginia Held has argued that “Contemporary Western society is in the grip of contractual thinking”. Contractual models have come to inform a vast variety of relations and interaction between persons, from students and their teachers, to authors and their readers.
  • Given this, it would be difficult to overestimate the effect that social contract theory has had, both within philosophy, and on the wider culture.
  • Social contract theory is undoubtedly with us for the foreseeable future. But so too are the critiques of such theory, which will continue to compel us to think and rethink the nature of both ourselves and our relations with one another.

 

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